Punctuation: Semicolon Prevents Comma Confusion

Avoid Comma Confusion

The second use of the semicolon occurs when we have an overabundance of commas.  We have three times when this use occurs.

Comma Confusion A

Normally, when we have several items in a row, rather than use a bullet, we string them in a list.  We call this “putting the items in a series”, and the comma that occurs with such a list is called the “serial comma”.

Example:  In her backpack, Charley always has a spare water bottle, extra socks, a space blanket, and a first aid kit.

Sometimes the items in a list have multiple parts.  For our readers, we need to group the multi-part items and separate them from the others.  We can do this with a semicolon.  We’re sort of “elevating” the serial comma in order to retain the grouping.


Yes, I know that sounds confusing.  A picture is worth 1,000 words.

  • Long before we reach Canada, our travels this Spring will take us to Greensboro, NC; Berea, KY;  Cincinatti, OH;  Erie, PA;  and Buffalo, NY.

The multi-part items are cities with their states.  The semicolon links each item to the next while maintaining the proper grouping for the reader.

Additional types of multi-part items include the following:

  • Names and positions held ~ Tyler Swanson, catcher; Marco Salaices, pitcher;  Dusty Jones, first base; etc.
  • Dates ~ month / day / year ~ August 15, 1999; September 15, 2009;  October 16, 2019; etc.
  • Author and title of book ~ Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice; Elizabeth Gaskell, North and South;  George Eliot, Middlemarch; etc.

Ticky Detail #3:  The semicolon continues to mark off the last item in the list and thus comes before any conjunction or following word.

Comma Confusion B: The Elliptical Construction

Back at Function 2, Sentence Enders, we discussed the Ellipsis.  Its use, remember, is to stand for words that are left out.

The double use of the comma with semicolon, as with multi-part items, also occurs with something called the Elliptical Construction.

In an Elliptical Construction, words are implied by context.  This means that the words would be similar (or exactly the same).  It’s a little like reading the formula for an analogy sentence. (This is to that as~~.)

For example, you want to say that John went kayaking and Alice went rock climbing.  In the Elliptical Construction, you say:  “John went kayaking;  Alice, rock climbing.”

The semicolon marks the omitted conjunction;  the comma marks the omitted verb.

The Elliptical Construction is very helpful when quoting statistics (baseball stats over several years) or when dealing with long defining explanations.

Notice that the semicolon continues to keep the multi-part items grouped while the comma serves for the omitted words.

Example:  Throughout the ages, the peaceful leaders who are causing great changes in the socio-political world are assassinated, as Jesus Christ became a martyr in Jerusalem;  Mahatma Gandhi, India; and Martin Luther King Jr., United States.

This only works when the sentences are parallel.  This can only happen when the first element of the parallel series occurs in its entirety.

Comma Confusion C

Here’s a third time that semicolons are used to avoid comma confusion.

You have joined two sentences properly with a comma and a conjunction;  however, both sides of the sentence have an abundance of commas.

Example:  In school, children write the pencils, pens, and paper;  yet at home, they may never pick up a writing instrument since they send emails, texts, and messages by using electronic keyboards.

The example sentence has six commas, seven if we count the semicolon that replaces the comma.  That’s three commas per side.  The semicolon very simply shows the divide between the two sentences.

One comma on one side is not sufficient to call for the replacement with the semicolon.  However, when two sentences are joined with the comma/conjunction and additional commas occur (either two in one sentence or one in both sentences or more, gracious me), the semicolon is an excellent marker.

Replace the comma of the comma/conjunction unit with the semicolon.  Keep the conjunction.

Example:  Over the river, through the woods, and to Grandmother’s house are the famous nursery rhyme directions;  yet with modern map apps on pervasive cell phones, we are beginning to lose the ability to orient ourselves to our worlds, especially when we venture beyond our stomping grounds.

We have more on the semicolon.  Come back next week well to receive your inoculation for conjunctivitis, a dastardly disease that semicolons can use.